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The Exploration and Meditation of Yuan (Origin)

Author: Liang Shaoji Translator: Serein Liu 2015

The topics of life are always the beginning as well as the pinnacle of topics of art. Time witnesses the occurrence of movement of matters. It testifies the gossamer trace left by everything else fleeting away. It is exactly this movement (as well as stillness) that discovers all. Hence, Thales has said ‘Time is the wisest’. Thanks to time, space is endowed with life. The trace of silk becomes testifier and index of existence so that everything can be measured. In a word, silk for me, is end of both time and life. It reveals the long process as it lines out the ‘One’ which is both infinitely vast and infinitely trivial.


Back to 1988, it was never difficult to draw from this duskiness the primal inspiration for me to work on plastic art with silkworm. It occurred to me the other day after raining when a thin beam of light from the high window of an auditorium lit up the dried cocoons nailed on silk. Suddenly the moment of great revelation befell. The blur between shadow and glittering silk seems to be animated. (Dried cocoons are baked through industrial process without any vital sign.)

I describe the lifecycle of silkworms as the ‘You Si Miao of Life’ (an infinitely fine line). Hidden in the silk net are their traces of metamorphosis, or say the traces of life: egg, silk, cocoons, pupae, moths, and the excretions of silkworms. In Chinese, the pronunciations of silkworm (蚕), broken (残) and Zen (禅) are very similar. In a sense, a landscape of silkworm is a recording of the adventures of life, a Zen painting that depicts the broken landscape.


Zhi Guan (止观), in Sanskrit as Dhyana, means ‘jing xu’ (静虚). ‘Jing’ (静) means serenity and stillness, while ‘xu’ (虚) means the ideology of wisdom. Meditation is a dynamic action in silence. The universe could only be observed when you stop your pace and pay all your attention. The feelings from heart is the Yuan (origin) of all senses, like what is said in Tiantai Sect: Three thousand realms in a single moment of life (一念三千).

Looking at the shadow of silkworm, I can read history.
History is just like the silk fibre running endlessly.
History is also like a wisp of cloud scudding into oblivion.

Slowly the cluster of caterpillars crawl and wriggle, casting a shadow on screen and forming an amazing piece of calligraphy - in silkworm script, an archaic style in China often found as memorial inscription in high cliff or tattoo on skin. Consisting of shadows of the movement of silkworm, the calligraphy is highly expressive: some raise heads eagerly, some squirm painfully, and others drop down accidentally. They become fable of history, the history of the hero, the great, the pain and the turmoil. As the silk piece grows thicker and thicker, light is gradually blocked so the characters of silkworm script disappear, leaving only a stele deprived of any inscription and the sound of humming. Words are not fully uttered and history not fully unfolded either. Witness of existence of those who exist, the wordless stele is also echoed by the plaint for the departed and implies the understanding of the passing of time. All things fall into void and finally oneness.

Chinese people have been upholding the tradition of history, literature, music and poem from ancient times. Learning from the ancients I sing out the history (like CAO Cao in View of the Blue Sea, LIU Bang in Song of the Great Wind, and CHEN Zi’ang in On a Gate-tower at Yuzhou). The sound in experiment is extraordinarily deep and spacious with profound meanings.

Note: When I dubbed for the final clips in 2014, I removed Xun (an egg-shaped instrument in China) sound and poem reciting from the background music. The only thing left is a little bit of hum, with babies’ respiratory sound as well as mine. I believe that history and art feature the breathing of life.
In addition, since the knowledge of biology is used as the medium of work and illusions as language, the spirit of those images and clips have become diffusing like ink on paper. In the same way, everything within the heavy stone tablet gradually transforms into a long river.

I take a sudden stop in utter silence.

Quietly a clock is deconstructed, hands going nowhere and face being covered by messed silk threads. The old clock goes into shock.

Silently an oval stone clock floats in middle of the air, wrapped by fine warm silk fibre, starting to melt bit by bit...

Serenely an accelerator is being erected. The clouds of silk on the wall echo with particles inside. They seem to be vapourising and eventually spin rapidly in the air.

No truth or illusion can be told. The silk fibre sparkles with soft power. Time is restarted.

‘Listen not by ear but heart; deal with the world in state of void; this is meditation of heart.’ Zhuangzi


Heidegger once wrote: ‘The poet’s vocation is homecoming, by which the homeland is first prepared as the land of nearness to the origin.’ I would like to replace ‘poetry’ with ‘silk (which shares a quite similar pronunciation in oral Chinese)’ for silk also directs into homecoming. It represents therapy of ‘homesickness’, ‘silence’ and ‘snow’.

For this I try to compose two poems.
The remote mountains are colored silver by snow.
The rough grassland vanishes quietly in gray winter.
‘Deep-frozen’ in utter silence,
It is worms of heaven that are creating snow.
Homecoming is somehow bleak.
It is time to conceal spirit of all beings.

High-heel shoes,
Carrying the snow of thousands of mountains.
Overwhelmed by the frozen landscape,
Only a few stars twinkle in dark night.
A complete silence hangs over the ancient palace.
To ask for the trace of snow,
But nowhere to find.

Approximately 2m long and 1.6m wide, the silk garment unearthed from Mawangdui Tomb weighs merely 39.8g. As light as cicada wings, the silk cloth carries an incredibly rich history of more than a thousand years. Taking a look at contemporary society, one finds no difficulty to read the tendency of microminiaturisation of device in the age of fragmented information. I try to study a wide range of possibilities of interpretation of round shape and I create Planar Tunnel. Extremely filmy and mysterious, they allow easily light going through. Evidence of the miracle of nature woven by silkworms, the work send a breath of life. Throwing a thin shadow on wall, the silk pieces seem to both float and disappear as if an endless tunnel is forming behind it...

In western Minimalism, metal is the material for primary structure of sculpture, and the sculpture is created in monumental scale, architectural language, absolute mechanical arrangement, and rational modelling. Such notion profoundly influenced later environment art and conceptual art. Yet minimalism works give the impression of too much indifference. I tried to explore a simple modeling language with contemporary ecological aesthetics.Laozi's "Zhi Xu Ji/to the extreme of emptiness" inspired me to meditate from another "minimal" perspective. Through long-term observation and experiments, I grasped the biological clock of silkworm, its respective swing of spinning movement in different spaces, and the law of piling at the physical edges of silkworms. Thereby, a thin translucent, clearly interwoven, neatly or un-neatly edged, richly projected planar silk foil generated. Round white planar silk pieces displayed in white walls, the edges have some mysterious relationships with the space, a shift illusion, as if the wax is slowly dissolving. (Under different light sources, it also looks as if gentle jade, or glittering titanium texture. Most interestingly, when the audiences approaching the rigidly geometrical silk pieces, which are hanged above walls with some distance, their breaths may even stir the ripple of life.

In my opinion, the concept of natural accumulation of silkworm spinning is categorized as sculpture. "Planar tunnel" is the thinnest ecological sculpture, and hard-edged minimalism works thus gaining some warm emotions, and having a dialogue with the audiences. It is no longer "absolute mechanical modeling".

Lucio Fontana made the public White Manifesto. He often made some open cuts on his canvases to create a sense of depth. Suddenly, planar became three-dimensional, and paintings changed into sculptures. Planar Tunnel reaches its sense of five dimensions by capturing time and the trace of life.

(IX) Destiny

Back in 1995 I put in another note of creation that ‘all creatures in the world are seeking for space for living in absurd and unsolvable contradiction. The difficulties of life come not only from the natural world but also actions of human being. As symbol of life, silk thread appears soft and fragile as if it would fall into disconnection in any second. Yet it composes a piece of beautiful music for the will of life and the deeply-seated belief of living, celebrating the ability of conquering the hardness with softness and the long-standing relations between life and silk filament.’

Destiny, an enormous mixed-media installation uncovers a chapter of appalling and screaming scenes: natural catastrophes and man-made calamities, falling mountains and cracks in earth, countless bullet holes in barrels, dirty oil stain badly everywhere, giant metal chains crawling out of a broken and rusty black box, squirming painfully back into mud, just like a serpent from Pandora’s box. The black box is perhaps related to flight recorder or the car of express train. Meanwhile what is confronting them is the tiny creature keeping producing a thin, warm and white filament and trying to cover everything with the soft thread. Yet the fiber is so strong that it somehow manages to twist the chains. Faced with all sorts of disasters and accidents, together with crushing tyranny, fierce battle, whirlpool of ‘black gold’, air disaster, car crash, the distorted and nearly buried life never backs off or gives in to fate. Silk fibre becomes the allegory of destiny.

Destiny is continuation of The Unbearable Lightness of Being. Yet the directions they refer to are not the same. If we say the creation of The Unbearable Lightness of Being between 2002 and 2007 draws a vertical line, holding a firm belief in the battle of destiny, and releasing a statement on behalf of the whole human race to the era of early 21st century with reference to the firmament, then Destiny speaks explicitly about a great number of confusions and upheavals suffered by the entire world, and celebrates the strength of life. As the chains run into and out of the mud, they seem to be traversing through the hell. Full of distortion, anxiety, heaviness, uneasiness, struggle, demolishment and awful tragedies, however, it is never utterly hopeless. It outlines a powerful counteraction. Taking earth as backbone, life is endowed with another chance of revival.

Additionally, destiny is unveiled around petroleum, the liquid also known as ‘black gold’, as well as silk fibre, the solidified liquid speaking as symbol of life. The battle of good and devil is clearly unfolded against the black and white.

Human nature is surely part of the world. And ‘Nature Series’ will continue to follow this clue - the concerns about the relations between human nature and society, history and nature.

However, the origin also exists in the ‘present’ and it is such a powerful element. The Italian philosopher Agamben holds an conception of time that the present is the marker of the past. That is why the Yuan (origin) must gaze into its present time rigidly, explore the darkness of today and describe it in a literal way. It is necessary to note that the ‘darkness’ Agamben refers is not the slough of despond. Instead, the ‘darkness’ is ‘the light that has tried to approach us but has not arrived yet’.

(XI) The apostle of light

Silk is the apostle of light and the laser of life. Crossing mysteries, it is the magnitude calling for redemption.  

(XII) The fated silk and porcelain

Numerous blue and white porcelains were being found at ancient kiln sites. Piles of ruins and sticky fragments were wriggling like silkworms, which surprised and inspired me. I brought some fragments to studio and let silkworms produce silk and create their artwork. At that moment, porcelain and silk, clay and water were brought together. And that seems to be their fate.  

Silk and porcelain are two different materials. One features softness and delicacy, while the other feels hard and cold. However, they are similar in presenting a sense of purity, void and fragility. Archeological research found that most grave goods were covered and preserved with pieces of silk while being buried, which, at the same time, illustrates that silk presents the greatest courtesy. Since the age of the Silk Road, silk and porcelain has been bonded together for centuries.

Today, they re-meet again. Is it a way to console, to grieve or to be reborn? Maybe it is exactly what nirvana (means repeating cycle of birth, life and death in Buddhism) is.

In 1970s, I was baking celadon in Long Quan, Zhejiang Province, and went to Latvia to bake pottery and porcelain in 1980s. These stimulating experiences have enlightened me. Later in 1989, I changed my creation medium to silkworms. What I found in Jingdezhen this year has generated a connection between my former experiences and the current project I’m working on. This can be regarded as fate which enables me to search for the relations among the Chinese five phases (metal, wood, water, fire and earth).    

(XIII) Silk Space - Wen Chuan Clock

Heaven rent and earth cracked, time space reversed, at 14.00 on 15 June 2006, Wen Chuan was as pale as the collapsed giant fractionating tower of the chemical factory, located in Hong Bai town of north Sichuan, all of a sudden, smashed as a dark hole, a concreted desolated clock fractions. When I was trembling gazed the nightmare placed in front of my eyes, awaken by the meadow swaying in breeze among ruins after earthquake – ‘speedy wind knows the resilience of grass’, ‘up-growth along with breeze’, ‘spring silkworm produces silk until the last moment of its life’...which reminds me the land used to be the birth place of bamboo, silk, ‘the region of abundance’...Hence, I picked pebbles and brick split floor slab scattered among muddy road, meadow, remaining wall and riverside, then relocated them to Blue Roof Museum, constructed an altar based on them. Additionally, twisted steel bars remained in the disaster area were welded into a vine circle liked plain frame without indicator, and held on a pile of stones which covered with silk and drippings of burning candles. The plain frame are remotely facing two directions: the wall of Blue Roof Museum in Chengdu, 12 silkworm cocoons on round silk foil and A Move in silence exhibited in ShanghART Gallery thousands miles away - another clock table, continuous silk connects through mountains and lakes.

Silk Space is a fossil of memory, moreover, a starting point of rebirth – Yuan (origin), behind a scene of emptiness and pause, is infinite growing time (silk) space (time and silk shares similar pronunciation).

(XIV) Vanity is the power of criticism and creation

When artistic vanity doesn't limit itself to sensual aesthetics, instead, it exists as a sacred ‘meditation’ and suspicious attitudes —— while suspecting, perspective critics and insightful creation are generated. Vanity may sprout, may give birth to everything, may approach the infinity.

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